In the pilot of My Name Is Earl, Earl (Jason Lee) introduces himself as “that guy you see going into the convenience store when you stop off in that little town on the way to Grandma’s house—sorta shifty-looking fellow who buys a pack of smokes, a couple lotto scratchers, and a tallboy at 10 in the morning.” The show’s premise is that one of those Scratch-N-Wins pays off, and the newly flush Earl decides to make karmic atonement for an array of social and moral errors. Conventional wisdom says that an ultra-lowbrow hero could be problematic, especially for a show that’s supposed to anchor the rebirth of “Must See TV.”Earl is a fairly sophisticated sitcom—a one-camera show with no laugh track and a slanted wit—that asks us to get our jollies by taking a tour of trailer park culture and smirking at stereotypical hicks. Further, to invoke a hideous word favored by network executives, how is scruffy Earl supposed to be “relatable” to the young, urban audience that made hits of Friends and Frasier?
It is essential to the feel of the show that Lee, who is also a co-producer, plays Earl Hickey as something of a caricature, and not that of a hick, either. No one is going to confuse this show with Hee Haw, The Dukes of Hazzard, or any Jeff Foxworthy product. Rather, it is Lee’s strategy (or maybe his instinct, or maybe his only choice) to present the character as a minor variation on the cuddlier, more marketable Gen-X type he’s been playing for over a decade. Earl’s grunginess, his posture, his quirky obsession, his odd but earnest spiritual quest—take away the El Camino and the arrest record, and he might have wandered in from Reality Bites. There’s also a very short distance between Earl’s backwoods accent and Lee’s own SoCal drawl. Let’s just say it: Earl is a slacker, and small-screen slackerdom is Lee’s destiny.
The first thing you need to know about Lee is that he got into acting by way of his earlier profession, skateboarding. He is said to be one of the all-time greats, which maybe explains the frisky confidence of his physical comedy and his casual second-job vibe. His first substantial roles came in two Kevin Smith films, venues in which anything recognizable as “acting”are the exception. These performances set the tone for his career.When we first see Lee in Mallrats, he is playing Sega in a basement bedroom, and he spends the bulk of the movie skulking around a shopping mall, letting loose mean and angry riffs, wasting all his energy on fantastic leaps of verbal hostility. His hair is shaggy, and his slouch is perfect. Chasing Amy demanded much the same skills, but it’s also where Lee began to work out the modulated boorishness and exasperated eyebrow action that he relies upon for Earl.
The contemporary actor who most resembles Lee in his delightful stubbornness of characterization is Chris Eigeman, who is most famous for playing droll jerks in Whit Stillman’s three WASP comedies. Both actors have the eccentric gift of seeming less like performers than wry and world-weary dudes who just need a good context for exaggerating their sensibilities. While such personalities are perfectly scaled to absurdist sitcoms like Earl and Eigeman’s criminally short-lived “It’s Like, You Know …,” you probably have to be named Bill Murray to become a leading man on those terms.
Of the 20-odd supporting film roles Lee has had, none is better than Jeff Bebe, lead singer of a ‘70s band in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous. The appeal of some rock stars is based on their not looking like they’re trying too hard, and Jeff is one of them. For the most part, he leans back and lets charisma flow forth. And so it is with Earl, a creation whose central comic predicaments involve obeying his conscience and trying to pick up the slack. Lee has already been nominated for a Golden Globe for the role. Asked on the red carpet what the experience was like, he responded, “I kind of would rather be at home taking a nap.”